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Health Highlights: Dec. 6, 2006

Consumers Warned About Jamba Juice Smoothies With Strawberries U.S. Companies to Give Workers Electronic Medical Records Scientists Find Potential 'Achilles' Heel' in Bird-Flu Virus U.S. Urged to Ban Children's Jewelry Containing Lead FDA Warns Companies to Stop Making Compounded Anesthetic Creams Australia Legalizes Cloning of Embryos for Stem Cell Research

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Consumers Warned About Jamba Juice Smoothies

Consumers in the U.S. Southwest are being warned that Jamba Juice Co. smoothies containing strawberries may be contaminated with the potentially deadly Listeria monocytogenes bacterium.

The warning applies to smoothies sold at Jamba Juice stores in Arizona, southern Nevada and southern California from Nov. 25 to Dec. 1, the Associated Press reported.

There have been no reports of illness, said the San Francisco-based company, which issued the warning Tuesday after it learned that some frozen strawberries from one of its suppliers tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes.

Jamba Juice immediately stopped shipments from that supplier -- Cleugh's Frozen Foods of Salinas, Calif. -- and removed all strawberries supplied by that company, the AP reported.

Listeria monocytogenes can cause potentially deadly infections in children, the elderly and other people with weakened immune systems. The bacterium can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths in pregnant women.

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U.S. Companies to Give Workers Electronic Medical Records

Workers at five of the largest employers in the United States will soon have electronic medical records that they can access from any computer.

The medical records of about 2.5 million workers and their dependents will be compiled by an independent, nonprofit organization and stored in a database that will only be accessible to the employees, the Associated Press reported.

The five companies -- Applied Materials; BP America Inc.; Intel Corp.; Pitney Bowes; and Wal-Mart -- hope the move will reduce health-care paperwork and reduce administrative costs, medical errors and duplication of care. The savings may make it easier for the companies to continue sponsoring health insurance for their employees.

The companies did not say how much the program will cost, the AP reported.

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Scientists Find Potential 'Achilles' Heel' in Bird-Flu Virus

U.S. scientists say they may have found the "Achilles' heel" of the H5N1 bird-flu virus and other influenza strains. This weak point may offer a target for new drugs to fight the viruses, the researchers say in a report to be published Thursday in the journal Nature.

The potential vulnerability is a loop in the long, flexible protein tail that's essential for flu virus replication. A single mutation in the amino building blocks that comprise this loop is enough to stop the virus from replicating, Agence France Presse reported.

"We know from previous genetic studies that this tail loop is almost identical across strains of influenza A, so drugs that target the tail have a high potential of being effective across multiple strains, including the H5N1 strains," research team leader Yizhi Jane Tao, of Rice University in Houston, said in a prepared statement.

"Such new antivirals are especially needed at the moment as some H5N1 viruses are resistant to the flu drug Tamiflu," Tao noted.

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U.S. Urged to Ban Children's Jewelry Containing Lead

The United States should ban children's jewelry that contains lead, says the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), an independent federal regulator responsible for overseeing the safety of consumer products.

The CPSC staff said Tuesday that the commission should prohibit the manufacture, sale and importation of toy jewelry that contains more than .06 percent lead by weight, the Associated Press reported.

Currently, most children's products with more than .06 percent lead are only subject to a recall. By prohibiting toy jewelry with that much lead, the CPSC could fine companies that knowingly make, sell, or import such products, said CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson.

"The goal is to make the marketplace safer when it comes to children's jewelry by having a simpler policy for companies in their manufacturing and CPSC in assessing safe from dangerous," Wolfson said.

He said lead paint in older homes is still the leading lead danger for children in the United States but the threat from toy jewelry has become a major issue in recent years. In 2004, the CPSC issued a recall for 150 million pieces of children's jewelry with unsafe lead levels. It was the largest recall in the commission's history, the AP reported.

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FDA Warns Cos. to Stop Making Compounded Anesthetic Creams

Five U.S. companies have been warned to stop compounding and distributing topical anesthetic creams, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday.

The compounded creams are being marketed for general distribution, rather than for the unique medical needs of individual patients, and the FDA is concerned about the possible health risks posed by these creams. Exposure to the high concentrations of local anesthetics in the creams can cause serious reactions, such as irregular heartbeats and seizures.

Two deaths have been connected to compounded topical anesthetic creams made by Triangle Compounding Pharmacy and University Pharmacy, two of the companies that received warning letters from the FDA. The other three are Custom Scripts Pharmacy, Hal's Compounding Pharmacy, and New England Compounding Center.

"Compounded topical anesthetic creams, like all compounded drugs, are not reviewed by FDA for safety and effectiveness, and are not FDA-approved. These high-potency drugs may expose patients to unnecessary risk, especially when they are used without proper medical supervision," Dr. Steven Galson, director of FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in a prepared statement.

Compounded topical anesthetic creams are often used to reduce pain in patients having procedures such as laser hair removal, tattoos and skin treatments. There are FDA-approved topical anesthetic products.

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Australia Legalizes Cloning of Embryos for Stem Cell Research

Australian legislators voted Wednesday to legalize the cloning of human embryos for stem cell research.

The House of Representatives voted 82-62 in favor of lifting a four-year-old ban on the procedure. Conservative Prime Minister John Howard and the other major party leaders voted against the bill, the Associated Press reported.

Last month, the Senate passed the bill. The new law will take effect in about six months, after government health and science officials establish guidelines for egg donation and research licensing.

In 2002, Australia's Parliament passed the country's first laws on stem cell research. Under those rules, scientists were only permitted to extract stem cells from spare embryos intended for in-vitro fertilization, the AP reported.

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